Sun, Mar 15, 2009 - Page 13 News List

Care to join the Party?

To exhibit in one of the art world’s biggest hotspots you have to play by Beijing’s rules. Some Taiwanese artists are willing, some aren’t, and others don’t seem to have a clue

BY Blake Carter  /  STAFF REPORTER

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On the second day of the Shanghai International Art Fair in September 2007, the event’s organizer confronted staff of Taiwan’s Galerie Grand Siecle (新苑藝術) about two works by Yao Jui-chung (姚瑞中).

“They said, ‘We were told your booth has something inappropriate that violates the rules of the show. If you don’t remove it immediately, you’ll have to close your booth,’” says Sophie Tseng (曾其瑢), the gallery’s coordinator of international affairs.

Taiwanese (2004) showed a red figure — presumably a symbol of communist China — having sex with an anthropomorphic green Formosan dog. The English word “Taiwanese” was juxtaposed with the quasi-homophonous Chinese characters tawannisi (他玩你死, “He fucks you to death”). The other problematic work, Chinese (2004), depicted the same red figure in what looks like a panel from a kung-fu comic book, with chuainisi (踹你死, “kick you to death”) written above “Chinese” in a speech bubble. The pieces were taken down.

Despite talk of Beijing’s growing tolerance of “controversial” artwork, themes dealing with animosity between Taiwan and China remain taboo. While Chinese painters like Wang Guangyi (王廣義) and Yue Minjun (岳敏君) have capitalized on the West’s fascination with the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square Massacre, both Chinese and foreign artists quickly learn that to show in China you have to play by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rules.

China’s international exposure and economic power often leave Taiwanese artists facing the same quandary that burdens politicians, businesspeople and voters. Like many Taiwanese, the response of local artists to Beijing’s stubborn hegemony runs the gamut from indifference to indignance and pragmaticism to confusion.

Twenty-eight-year-old Taiwanese artist Ya-chu Kang (康雅筑) — a friend of mine — showed her work at a fiber arts exhibition at Suzhou Art and Design Technology Institute two years ago without incident. When I learned her pieces were displayed in the “domestic” section of the exhibit, Kang said that although she considers herself Taiwanese and not Chinese, she hadn’t thought much about the implications of being labeled “domestic” in China. She’s annoyed by recent developments such as President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) saying that CCP officials needn’t call him “president” and his referring to Taiwan as an “area” rather than a country, but for the most part she’d rather not think about politics.

“It makes me feel sick,” she says. “If I open the paper and there’s an article about cross-strait politics, I won’t read it. It’s boring.”

Though Kang’s work rarely touches on political themes, even artists like 39-year-old Yao, who has built a career around politically oriented art, sometimes participate in shows as “Chinese” artists. Echoing Taiwanese businesspeople and athletes, these artists argue that terms like “domestic,” “Taiwan, China” and “Chinese Taipei” are irrelevant to their work.

But off the record, many artists rankle at the labels China forces on them. While chatting after an interview last year, one of Taiwan’s most successful painters proudly told me he once refused to show in China because of just such an appellation. When I requested details to include in this article, the previously effusive artist didn’t reply.

Taichung-based painter Huang Chin-ho (黃進河) has no such qualms. With trains roaring by his converted warehouse studio and Taiwanese classics pealing from an old cassette player, Huang zestily described what it means to be a Taiwanese artist.

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